Obsessive compulsive disorder, also known as OCD, is a common mental disorder that is unfortunately widely misunderstood. Here are some basic facts about OCD, along with important information on the strong link between OCD and addiction.

What is OCD?

People with OCD typically suffer from recurrent, unwanted obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger deeply unsettling feelings. These obsessions typically seem irrational to most people, but to the individual with OCD, these obsessions are very real and distressing. Compulsions, meanwhile, are behaviors that the individual with OCD engages in to eliminate the stress that obsessions cause. Often these obsessions and compulsions inhibit someone from maintaining a healthy daily routine.

Most people associate OCD with an obsession with germs, and with compulsions to wash hands repeatedly or for long periods of time. Or, they associate it with an obsession with clutter, and with compulsions to organize things. These are two examples of OCD symptoms, but they do not describe all cases. There are a variety of obsessions and compulsions that people with OCD struggle with. A person with OCD may have a fear of lashing out verbally at others, of speaking blasphemy in spiritual settings, of causing a car wreck, or of losing things. Common compulsions include excessive washing or cleaning, frequent asking for reassurance, repeating activities in “multiples,” and repeating routine activities. There really is no limit as to what form obsessions and compulsions can take.

OCD and other mental disorders

Before discussing the link between OCD and addiction, it’s important to first mention the link between OCD and other mental disorders. Because the symptoms of OCD can be so severe and so distressing, they can trigger other disorders such as anxiety or depression. Symptoms of OCD can even lead to suicidal thoughts. This makes OCD especially dangerous, and it means that those with OCD can have an especially high risk of developing addiction.

OCD and addiction

OCD causes significant mental and emotional pain. This pain can grow so severe that it causes the sufferer to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, however, drugs and alcohol only offer temporary relief—not to mention they introduce a whole new array of problems. Because the relief that substances offer is only temporary, repeated obsessions and compulsions will result in increased substance use, and ultimately abuse, dependency, and addiction.

Self-medication isn’t the only gateway to substance addiction for those with OCD. OCD can also cause severe feelings of shame and loneliness, leading to social isolation. These feelings of shame and isolation can grow severe enough that they, in turn, lead to substance use.